Was Charles Manson a CIA lab rat?

The cult leader brainwashed his followers using the same techniques MKULTRA was trying to perfect.

Justin Ward


Charles Manson 1968 mugshot (Public Domain)

In 1999, freelance journalist Tom O’Neill accepted what he thought would be a simple assignment: He was tapped to write a story about the Manson Family’s lasting impact on Hollywood to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders. It seemed like easy money since the infamous killings were well-trod territory. His biggest challenge—or so he thought—would be finding something new to report.

While he did stumble upon a fresh angle, O’Neill missed his deadline by 20 years. The magazine that commissioned the original article went out of business before he finished, but his reporting eventually became the basis for a book released this year titled Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.

Two decades later, he still has as many questions as answers. He only knows one thing for certain: The established narrative about the Manson murders is wrong.

O’Neill’s quixotic quest to uncover the truth about the Tate-LaBianca murders began when he interviewed Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who put the Family away. Bugliosi’s bestselling true crime thriller Helter Skelter provided the canonical account of the killings. He argues in the book that Manson’s main motive was to start an apocalyptic race war by framing the Black Panthers.

Actress Sharon Tate was killed by the Manson Family in 1969 along with her unborn child (Public Domain)

Over the course of six hours, Bugliosi told O’Neill very little that he hadn’t read in the book or previous interviews, but at the very end the reporter went for the “Hail Mary” and asked Bugliosi if there was anything he could say about the case “off the record.”

In that moment, Bugliosi showed O’Neill a single loose thread, and when he pulled it, the entire Helter Skelter narrative started coming undone.

The more O’Neill looked at the case, the less the official story made sense. At best, Bugliosi had suborned perjury and distorted the facts to fit the Procrustean bed of his own pet theory. At worst, he had covered up for a conspiracy…



Justin Ward

Journalist and activist. Founder and co-chair of DivestSPD. Bylines at SPLC, The Baffler, GEN, USA Today. Follow on Twitter: @justwardoctrine, @DivestSPD